In almost every conference, there is a perpetual underdog; that status is typically based on some combination of higher academic requirements (Northwestern, Vanderbilt), private status (Baylor), remote location (Washington State) or other factors that end up giving them fewer football resources and opportunities than other schools in their conference. Generally speaking, the ACC has two of these teams: Duke and Wake Forest.
When Wake Forest hired then-Ohio coach Jim Grobe following the 2000 season, the Demon Deacons had been to just three bowls since 1950. Wake had won three or fewer games in a season nine times in 12 years. Bill Dooley had taken the Demon Deacons to the Independence Bowl (and a No. 25 ranking) in 1992, and Jim Caldwell had gone 7-5 with an Aloha Classic win in 1999. But in the other 10 seasons between 1989 and 2000, the Deacs had gone just 27-82-2.
Duke, meanwhile, had experienced a very similar level of recent (lack of) success. They had been to just two bowls since 1960 (1989 All-American Bowl, 1994 Hall of Fame Bowl), they had experienced two 0-11 campaigns in five years, and they had won three or fewer games in eight of 10 seasons. They were entering Year Three of the Carl Franks era (ALSO an 0-11 campaign), and in 2004, they would move on to Ted Roof. Roof went 4-42 from 2004-07.
In the 11 years since Wake Forest hired Grobe, the Demon Deacons have gone 68-67 with five bowl appearances and an ACC title in 2006. After two tough seasons in 2009-10 (combined record: 8-16), Wake returned to a bowl in 2011, riding an upset of Florida State to six wins and the Music City Bowl.
Duke? Still searching for answers. The Blue Devils went 4-8 in 2003, 4-8 in 2008 and 5-7 in 2009. In the other eight seasons, they have gone 12-81. They hired David Cutcliffe in 2008, and he has brought a certain level of competence to the job. His Blue Devils have been a bit of a tougher out, and he has implemented creative, underdog-friendly approaches like a 4-2-5 defense and a boatload of quick, horizontal passing in attempt to stretch defenses as far as possible side to side before (rarely) finding holes vertically.
But Grobe goes all-in.
Jim Grobe teams have no illusions as to their status. His offense is famously staked on as much misdirection as possible, and his conservative, undersized 3-4 defense only allowed more than 30 points twice in ACC play. Wake Forest ranks 90th in two-year recruiting; that would be good for 11th in Conference USA. Only one other ACC team (Duke, of course, at 79th) ranks worse than 62nd. But the Deacs' five-year performance ranks 57th. No team makes more of what it has than Wake Forest …
… but that's still not guaranteed to be enough. Despite some nice recovery, Wake still went just 6-7 in 2011. And in 2012, Grobe must replace his leading running back, his leading receiver and four multi-year starters on the offensive line. The defense should improve from last year's No. 86 Def. F/+ ranking, but an offense that ranked 47th in Off. F/+ should take a few steps backwards.
If Grobe crafts a bowl team out of this bunch, his fifth in seven years, then he will fulfill his status as the master of the underdog tactics. But it will take a lot.
Oh, have they tumbled. They actually fielded potentially their best team under Grobe as late as 2008 (that squad went 8-5 but ranked 30th in F/+, whereas the 2006 conference champions went 11-3 but ranked just 32nd; the difference, of course, was that they went 3-4 in close games instead of 5-0), but they fell to 47th in 2009, and with just about the youngest squad you've ever seen, they bottomed out in 2010, ranking just 97th. It was easily their worst finish in what we could call the F/+ era (2005-10). But at least they were young. Other teams (Kansas) fell to pieces with a reasonably experienced team. […]
All possible signs point to a rebound for the Demon Deacons in 2011, but the question, as always, is how much? Because Wake was all sorts of bad last year, and a rebound of 20-30 spots in the F/+ rankings still puts them near the bottom of the ACC.
Wake Forest was so young in 2010 that they'll still be pretty young in 2011 and 2012. But when you bottom out, you at least want to know there's reason to still come to work the next season, and with sophomores like Josh Harris, Nikita Whitlock and, of course, Tanner Price, Grobe has that. Home games against Gardner Webb, N.C. State (early in the Mike-Glennon-as-QB era), Maryland and Vanderbilt will give them a chance to compile some wins if they are indeed decent, but chances are this will be another rebuilding year with the hope of another decent run in 2012-13.
The Football Outsiders 2011 gave Wake Forest a two percent chance of reaching bowl eligibility, but thanks to a hot start, they did just that. The young Deacs took advantage of a doable early schedule and some Florida State injury woes to race out to a 4-1 start, then took out the two most beatable teams left on their schedule (Duke and Maryland) to reach the six-win mark for the first time in three years. On paper, Wake regressed pretty severely as the year progressed, but the year was at least somewhat positive nonetheless.
First Five Games: Wake Forest 28.1 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 25.1 (plus-3.0)
Last Eight Games: Opponents 29.5 Adj. Points per game, Wake Forest 26.8 (minus-2.7)
Opponents caught on to the "We're going to throw the ball to Chris Givens as much as possible" offense (in consecutive weeks against Boston College, Florida State and Virginia, Givens caught 20 of 33 passes for 373 yards) and slowed the Deacs down a bit (at least until Michael Campanaro developed into an equally dangerous weapon), but the defense regressed rather severely following the win over Florida State. The defense is still dramatically undersized, but is quite a bit more experienced in 2012, so there should be at least a little hope that the unit keeps it together a little further into both a given game (they were much better in the first and third quarters than in the second and fourth) and the season as a whole.
If you're looking to talk yourself into the Wake Forest offense, then here's an odd tidbit you've got going for you: the offensive line really wasn't very good last year. That is an odd note of positivity, of course, but considering the Deacs must replace five linemen with starting experience (107 career starts) and return only two (15 career starts), it would be easy to assume severe regression from the offense as a whole. But the simple fact is, Wake ranked 115th in Adj. Line Yards and 85th in Adj. Sack Rate last year. An incredibly inexperienced line isn't going to do TOO much worse than that -- it's almost an impossibility.
So if you cleanse the palate of what appears to be Wake's biggest question mark, then there are quite a few things to like. Despite a below-average run game and decent-at-best protection, quarterback Tanner Price turned in an incredible sophomore season. He threw for 3,017 yards, completed 60 percent of his passes, threw 20 touchdowns to just six picks (three versus North Carolina, and three versus the other 12 opponents), and, when defenses began to account for Chris Givens, shifted his focus to a new No. 1 man.
Wake's passing game was a little more aggressive than the "underdog tactics" moniker would suggest -- the Deacs ranked 35th in Passing PPP+ (explosiveness), and Givens averaged 16.0 yards per catch -- and while that led to a rather high sack rate (7.5 percent), it still worked pretty well.
Givens (1,330 yards, 9.9 per target, 62 percent catch rate) is gone, and with Michael Campanaro (833 yards, 7.9 per target, 69 percent catch rate) the new No. 1, expect higher efficiency and lower explosiveness from the Wake pass offense in 2012. Campanaro really came on as the year progressed; he caught 35 passes for 434 yards in the first eight games of the year, but then he caught 38 for 399 in the final five. He exploded in the Music City Bowl versus Mississippi State: 15 targets, 10 catches, 128 yards. With Givens hemmed in (19 targets, nine catches, 54 yards), Campanaro almost led Wake to an upset win.
Campanaro emerged as a wonderful underneath threat, but someone new will need to be able to stretch the field a bit. Otherwise Campanaro's 11.4 yards-per-catch average could turn into an ineffective 9.4 or so. The three returning receivers with any targets in 2011 -- Terence Davis (20 catches), Lovell Jackson (four) and Quan Rucker (one) -- combined to average 12.8 yards per catch (with an awful 49 percent catch rate), but redshirt freshman Sherman Ragland III showed some decent speed potential this spring. One hates to rely on a freshman for a key contribution, but Wake might not have a choice.
Despite poor blocking, three Wake running backs showed solid explosiveness potential in 2011. Brandon Pendergrass, Josh Harris and Orville Reynolds all averaged between 3.9 and 4.4 yards per carry and between 1.6 and 1.8 highlight yards per carry, and though Pendergrass, the primary ball-carrier (at least thanks to Harris' injury problems), is gone, it does appear that Harris and Reynolds should at least match last year's production. Reynolds had his redshirt torn off in the ninth game of the year following a hamstring injury for Harris, and while his numbers were not incredibly impressive, they were still comparable to Pendergrass and Harris. He and Harris both have potential, and in a perfect world, they'd get blocking good enough to truly show what they can do.
At its best, Wake Forest's 2011 3-4 defense functioned as an opening and closing umbrella. Drop eight (with a light and mostly ineffective line trying to hold the fort), then swarm to the ball. (And at its worst, it was just a broken umbrella.) But the Demon Deacons still took risks and sacrificed big plays for efficiency. As a result, the Demon Deacons produced perhaps the weirdest, most contradictory set of stats in college football.
Here are some of the contradictions:
- Wake Forest ranked 65th in Adj. Line Yards and 118th in Adj. Sack Rate. Despite a passive, light front three, the Deacs used quickness to stop some plays in the backfield and used speed to swarm to the ball as quickly as possible. It often worked, but if an opposing runner got through the wave of bodies to the second level of the defense, he probably had quite a bit of room to run.
- The defensive line recorded a total of 4.5 sacks all season. I tried to compile the list of individual FBS linemen who recorded that many, but the list was too long. Wake was completely passive in the pass rush, attacking the ball much more than the passer -- the Deacs ranked 15th in the country in passes defended with 13 interceptions and 59 passes broken up. Then-freshman Merrill Noel was incredible, picking off two passes and breaking up another 19. Wake relied completely on clogging passing lanes and hoping opponents wouldn't find open receivers. Sometimes it worked … and often it didn't.
- Nose guard Nikita Whitlock was one of the best play-makers of all ACC defensive linemen. Typically, a 3-4 nose guard is not going to make many plays, period -- his job is as much to occupy blockers as anything else. But Whitlock was even odder simply because he is 5'11, 260 pounds. That's small for a 3-4 end. But he shed blockers enough to log 14.0 tackles for loss and caught fire in the middle of the season: he had 8.5 tackles for loss in a four-game span against Florida State, Virginia Tech, Duke and North Carolina.
- Wake Forest was much, much more effective in the red zone (38th in Red Zone S&P+) than on the first 80 yards of the field. You know, despite being undersized and supposedly passive.
Whitlock, Noel and a host of linebackers return to lead what should be a similar defense this fall. Three of the top four tacklers and two of the top three defensive ends, however, are gone. It is hard to know what to make of the losses of the ends, simply because they did so little in the box score. But the departures of safeties Cyhl Quarles and Josh Bush (combined: 126.5 tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss, six interceptions, eight passes broken up) could hurt. Wake was already a little leaky in terms of big-play prevention, and a new pair of safeties might not help in that regard. Long time Grobe assistant, and defensive co-coordinator in 2011, Tim Billings is gone as well, so it will be interesting to see what, if anything, that affects.
Still, the 2012 defense should be as fast, as light, and quite a bit more experienced this fall. Linebackers Justin Jackson and Mike Oson (combined: 12.5 tackles for loss, three passes broken up, three forced fumbles) lead a deep corps of linebackers, and youngsters like redshirt freshman end Desmond Floyd and sophomore outside linebacker Zachary Allen could make a nice impact. This contradictory defense should not be a lot better in 2012, but it is fair to assume that it will be at least somewhat better. And hey, if the offense and defense each improve a little from a team that went bowling last year, that's something, right?
I would say that the "success or not" line for 2012 is the same as it typically is for Wake Forest: bowls are good. And home games versus Liberty, Army and Duke should get the Demon Deacons halfway there. And while the Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 actually likes Boston College a bit, I'm going to assume Wake fans are assuming that one is a win (which makes sense, considering Wake's 27-19 win at B.C. last year). But finding two more wins will either require home upsets (remaining home schedule: North Carolina, Clemson, Vanderbilt) or strong road performances (at Maryland, at Virginia, at N.C. State). It is a reasonable goal, but certainly not a slam dunk.
The lack of experience on the offensive line is a concern, whether or not last year's line was any good. The lack of size on the defensive line is a clear hindrance, whether or not Nikita Whitlock can make some plays behind the line of scrimmage. The losses of players like Chris Givens and both starting safeties removes some of the safety net, and Wake has almost no choice but to rely on some newcomers to get back to a bowl.
But I've learned to assume that Wake is probably going to produce more than I think they are going to. And with playmakers like Tanner Price, Josh Harris, Michael Campanaro, Whitlock, Justin Jackson, Mike Olson, Merrill Noel, etc., there's a decent chance that the Deacs will be disruptive enough to steal six wins somewhere. And as long as that's enough for Wake fans, then it's enough for me, too.
For more on the Demon Deacons, visit Wake Forest blog Blogger So Dear.
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